One of the most essential elements of graphic novels is the collaboration between writing and art, whether one person fills those roles or several. You can have great writing or great artwork and still have it result in an entertaining story. But stories that are woven so that you’re not sure where the writing separates from the artwork are something truly special. Among all of the graphic novels that I’ve read, Black Orchid, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean, is certainly in the special category. Black Orchid was written in 1988, before McKean had illustrated Batman: Arkham Asylum and before Gaiman had written Sandman. I cannot think of a more perfect pairing for this story than those two. McKean has a talent for intensely realistic panels mingled with expressionistic, gorgeously dreamy ones that give his stories a feel of myth and unreality. Gaiman is the master myth maker, capable of writing stories that live and breathe magic into the real world of city streets and mobsters. There have been a number of good or even great creator pairings but a Gaiman-McKean story is on its own level. It’s almost unfortunate that Black Orchid is a self-contained, one volume story because it just leaves you wanting more.
Black Orchid is the story of a little known DC superheroine who uses her plant based powers to fight crime in Metropolis. But that is where this story stops with the traditional superhero story. In the course of infiltrating a criminal organization, Black Orchid is murdered. That’s not a spoiler, it’s where the story begins. The villains aren’t your classic, endless monologue types and they waste no time in disposing of the superheroine once they’ve discovered her. But the end is a beginning of sorts and as a new Black Orchid rises, she must learn her identity and deal with those who want every facet of her erased from memory. Along the way, Black Orchid will come into contact with some of the most well-known DC characters: Batman, Swamp Thing, Poison Ivy and others. For a story that starts in Metropolis, there are a large number of Gotham-centric characters in this one and I loved that.
It’s difficult to talk much about characters or plot without spoiling parts of the story so I’ll keep my discussion of that brief. Neil Gaiman has been one of my favorite writers for many years. No one can create myth like that man and I will forever be in awe of him for that. In many ways, Black Orchid reminds me of The Sandman series which was written ten years later. For all that she’s a result of a scientific experiment, Black Orchid has a very mythic, god-like feel to her and much of the story focuses on her reaction to, and often rejection of, violence. This isn’t a Batman or Punisher style story where the hero (or heroine) resorts to violence when faced with criminal violence. In fact, there’s a great scene where Black Orchid comes face to face with Batman and the latter’s reaction to her reveals a lot about what we as readers expect from superheroes and is in ways a rejection or reversal of that. It’s incredibly well done.
And this review could not be complete without touching on the artwork. McKean truly is the perfect artist to illustrate this story. It’s interesting to compare the artwork here with his artwork in Arkham Asylum (written by Grant Morrison). While his ethereal style in Arkham Asylum is full of nightmarish images and dark, creepy colors, the same style here in Black Orchid is a natural paradise with rich, vibrant colors that make you want to use the panels as wallpaper. Gaiman’s writing tends to create these dreamy, mythic scenes in your head even when he’s writing novels and McKean’s style is the perfect counterpart to that. They are woven together in such a way Gaiman and McKean can create pages where the art is telling you as much as the words are.
As much as it pains me to say so, Black Orchid won’t be for everyone. If your favorite part of reading superhero stories is in the good always triumphing over evil through punching and/or good ol’ boyscout manners, Black Orchid will sorely disappoint you. Black Orchid is a story that questions and even rejects the use of violence in fighting crime and plays with what the reader expects from a superhero story. It’s hands down the most gorgeously illustrated graphic novel I’ve ever read and one of those that I think I could read many times and see a different aspect of each time. It would be a crime if Black Orchid weren’t on every “Best Graphic Novels” list because this is an incredible, must-read story.